Skeptical musings on ‘treating different customers differently’ and the expertise of business gurus

You may know that I value skepticism in the sense of questioning the taken for granted.  In this post I question the  central tenet of the customer business.  And I question the insight and expertise of customer gurus and management consultants. Let’s start with the central tenet.

What is the right basis for treating different customers differently?

If there is a central tenet of the whole customer business (CRM, CXM, customer retention & loyalty) then it is this: treat different customers differently.  How does that work in practice?  There are two options: you can treat different customers differently based on their needs or based on their financial value.  Which should take priority?

Imagine that you are in pain doubled up in the waiting room of a hospital emergency room. It is late at night during the new year holidays and there is a shortage of doctors.  So there are some ten people there with you in the waiting room – each of whom is keen to get seen to quickly.  What basis should be used to decide who gets access to the scarce/valuable ‘resource’ (the doctor) next?  Should the basis be first come first served?  Should it be the person who is in most need of urgent attention because his/her life is at risk?  Should it be the person who is willing to pay the highest price – the one that represents the most financial value?  What do you say?

What would the ‘customer guru’ say if he was to act consistently with his business philosophy?  He would say that if the hospital is a business then the people in the waiting room should be divided up (segmented) first by their financial value (to the hospital) and then by their medical needs.  Which means that the person who is going to make the most money for the hospital and who is most in need of urgent attention should be the next one to get to see the doctor.

What actually happened?  I was that person in the waiting room doubled up with pain.  And the lady next to me was in a lot of pain as well.  We were talking and complaining about the shortage of doctors, how slow the process was, how long we had been waiting – over an hour. We both hoped that we would get seen to quickly – ideally next.  Then a mother came in with a young child who was clearly in a lot of pain.   What was our reaction?  Both of us were adamant that the young child had to be seen next and seen immediately; we forgot our pain, we no longer thought about ourselves, our humanity reached out to that young child who was suffering so much!  And I noticed that all the other adults in the waiting room forgot themselves and collectively we gave one big sigh of relief when that young child was taken to see the doctor after a couple of minutes. Clearly, the hospital got this because they were seeing us on the basis of our need – how serious our condition was.  And that  is what allowed us all to bear our pain and go with the system: the system occurred as fair, as just – as one that does justice to human dignity.

I hope that you get what I am getting at here.  If you do not then let me spell it out for you.  What the ‘customer gurus’ espouse contradicts certain ingrained values that go with being human.  Most of us have a sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ including that which contributes to our human dignity and that which takes away from our human dignity.  Visibly treating different customer differently is a minefield because it brings out into the open the question of human dignity.  It occurs to me that only people who are not called to by these values are economists, MBAs, business gurus and management consultants.

Why you should be skeptical about business gurus and management consultants

First and foremost, I say, you should be skeptical of any business guru and every management consultant.  Why?  Because business gurus and management consultancies are in the business of passing of philosophy as science, as scientific management, as truth, even if they are not aware that this is what they are doing.  Put differently, when you take a thorough skeptical look then you find that the business gurus and management consultancies are like the king who was not wearing any clothes – it just took a child to see it and call it.

At his point, I wish to introduce you to Colin Shaw because has written a post that has generated high emotion.  Colin is the CEO of Beyond Philosophy – a customer experience consultancy which  makes a big point about the importance of tapping into the irrational side of customers and says it has a scientific proven method for doing so.  On LinkedIn Colin describes himself as “Author 4 Customer Experience books | Consultant | Customer Retention & Customer Loyalty | Keynote Speaker” 

His latest post hasn’t got the kind of reaction (comments) that he was expecting. I think it is fair to say he shows up as being totally surprised by the reaction as expressed through numerous comments many of which are not supportive of him and his point of view.  Which occurs to me as interesting given that the heart of  all things customer is a good grasp of the human condition.  Colin starts off his latest post (Missed opportunities to identify high value Customers – Virgin Atlantic Case Study)  with the following:

“I fly a lot. I have Diamond status on the Delta airlines loyalty scheme, the highest you can get. I really fly a lot! On my briefcase and all my bags I have the Delta Diamond tags. This is like wearing a beacon that says ‘this guy flies a lot’!

My question is, “When I fly with other airlines, do they ignore this display that says I am a high value Customer and could be one of your best customers?” It seems that my badge has the cloak of invisibility as everyone ignores it. Why?

Back in my past career, when I used to run call centers, I remember saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if we knew how much potential revenue the caller could spend with us”. The reality was if I knew someone could spend $1m dollars I would treat them differently to someone that could only spend $10. Airlines seem to ignore this in the choices they make when designing their Customer Experience. This is a lost opportunity. 

Let me give you five examples from a recent experience with Virgin Atlantic on how they are missing these opportunities:”

What kind of reception did this post receive?  An emotional one!  A human one, that discloses reality as experienced by the ordinary airline customers: the lived experience rather than theory. Allow me to share some of the comments that showed up as particularly interesting:

1. “Welcome to the real world Mr. Shaw!”

2. “is this dude serious?”

3. “Colin…here is part of the issue that people are having with your rant. I also fly quite a bit, but simply not enough to get this kind of status. When I go to the airport, I have to wait in a security line while people with “status” have their own priority line, and the airport decides that having the two lines converge on the same TSA agent is a good idea. This means that people without status feel that they are being held up because you have your fancy Delta tags. Then the boarding begins and they do the same thing…..put lines converging on a door where people with status move to the front and cause others to wait. Then there is me – a frequent flier who is in the airport enough to hate travel, and not enough flights to get the airlines to recognize how unpleasant it is to travel…..A significant part of that unpleasantness is the fact that I have to be put aside by a wave of people like yourself who have that level of status. Think about every other industry where status matters. Credit cards offer status to high value customers, but recipients of the cards do not inconvenience other card holders when they make a purchase, so no resentment exists. The backlash you are feeling is from people who have to witness and be inconvenienced by what we all know you deserve. Virgin should take care of you, but not at the expense of other travelers.

4. “Wait, it gets better. So now (in your clarification) you’re saying that Virgin could buy your loyalty back by putting you in a shorter check-in queue, and giving you a $48 rebate on your excess baggage, and accepting responsibility because you had lost your headphones? So, not only are you arrogant and self-important, you have no brand loyalty – Delta should value their relationship with you so highly that they treat you like a king, but you value YOUR relationship with Delta so little that after years of good service, upgrades, priority check-in, etc. you’d defect to Virgin for $48 and a check-in queue that is 3 minutes shorter. In other words, for you brand loyalty is a one-way street. As one of the previous comments asked, who exactly do you consult for? I bet they’d be interested to know your new views on asymmetric brand loyalty, and on exactly what can be bought for $48 and 3 minutes…… Then, in your next follow-up, you suggest that you should be treated better than other economy class passengers because you travel more often! So now you’re expecting Club Class treatment while flying economy! Amazing! I drive far more than average, should I have a booklet of “get off with speeding fines” vouchers, or my own special lane as a reward for being a frequent driver? With each post your position sounds more and more ridiculous. Please, stop digging, it’s becoming embarrassing.

5.  “Over 700 million a year fly a year. What makes you any different? Are you military flying back and forth from deployments? No I didn’t think so. Those are the only people that deserve to be treated like royalty when flying. Though I’m sure you’ve given up your first class seat multiple times for a military member haven’t you. No, I didn’t think so. Should people that ride the bus to work on a daily basis be treated better than a person who only rides it occasionally? Did you once think why they have to limit carry on size? Maybe they have calculated the capacity of the overhead storage and this allows all customers to be able to store the same amount of carry on luggage. Its ok cause you fly so much everyone else should have to suffer so you can carry your oversize bags. I bet that $48 dollars will make you think twice before trying to carry on a small suit case next time. Then again if your so high value, I’m sure $48 is pennies to you People try to do this all the time, carry on large bags to avoid waiting at the luggage belts. I fly with Virgin anytime I fly home to the UK with no complaints. Then again I don’t expect to have my A#$ kissed everytime I fly. If thats what your looking for, maybe you should be looking at different services. 2 christmas ago I got stuck in London due to blizzard that hit the east coast of the U.S. While other airlines had their customers sleeping on air port floors, Virgin paid in advance for hotel for 3 nights and even paid 75% of my expenses. Its funny you pick Virgin to bash on when customer service is so terrible and a lot worse in so many other services. Have you tried to call your cable recently or tried making a large purchase at Best Buy during the holiday season? Try bashing them for not bowing down before you go after airlines.”

6. “”Try replacing the word airline with wife/husband/partner. I used to take her out to nice restaurants, go on romantic holidays, buy her presents. Then I left her for someone closer to work. The other week I thought I’d pop round to see her. With my new kids. Showed her pictures of us on holiday. And then (and this makes me really angry), she says she’s moved on!!”

7. “You seem to be a very important man. How disconnected from real life you must be…”

And finally

I say that if you want to excel at the game of Customer then cultivate the human. My experience is that to excel at the Customer game one has to have an intuitive feel for the human in the human being.  How do you do that?  By putting yourself into real, commonplace, human situations and being present to what shows up for you.  By reading the right kind of literature – that means avoiding business and management books!

I say be skeptical about any advice coming from Tops, business gurus, management consultants, MBAs and economists. Why? They are disconnected from real life – the real world experienced by most of humanity, most of your customers.  And, like all philosophers they fall so in love with their philosophy that he forget that it is just philosophy – at best a partial view of reality. I really do believe that Colin Shaw thinks that he is not doing philosophy and that is why he has called his business Beyond Philosophy.

Please note, I have only used Colin Shaw and Beyond Philosophy as an example to illustrate a point simply because this landed on my lap at the right time.  Recently, there was the much publicised demise of The Monitor Group a strategic consultancy established by the king of strategy (Michael Porter).  Which is my way of saying that I am talking about academics, consultants, gurus and not any one single person or organisation.

What do you say?

Service: “Wow, sometimes you make a crazy request, you get an awesome answer”

“At this very moment, I knew why Gandhi ever lived because with people like Jackie, mankind is worth saving after all…. Wow, sometimes you make a crazy request, you get an awesome answer.”  A delighted customer

There is a lot written about service and all kinds of tips, tricks and recipes are put forward for people/organisations which are looking for the latest silver bullet for improving customer service and/or the customer experience.  Usually the bullet consists of some kind of training for people, playing around with the KPIs,  rewarding the front line people differently, redesigning processes and making changes in technology. When I read this stuff I ask myself, why is it that so many of us are still trapped in the web spun by Frederick Taylor and Scientific Management?

You may have noticed that I don’t put forward recipes.  Why?  They just don’t work in the real world.  The same recipes have been pushed, in many different guises, for such a long time. And what is the state of customer service as experienced by customers?

I have a very different take on the service and why it is that service is so poor.  In this post I wrote “..what we see, how we see it, what we focus on, what we do and the results that show up cannot be ‘greater than’ the concept we live/act from.  I say that service sucks because our concept of service sucks. Put differently given the existing concept of service that holds us prisoner it is inevitable that service sucks.” I went to write:

Service is a gift that one human being bestows on a fellow human being.  The fundamental basis and the desired outcome of Service is human dignity itself: honouring our shared humanity – the best of our shared humanity as in when we move-touch-inspire and elevate one another. The kind of humanity that can move us to tears of joy.”

Today, I find myself in a position to illustrate what I am pointing at here by inviting you to watch two short videos where  one customer encounter a human being that clearly lives that which I am pointing at in my definition.  She is the kind of human being that my friend Richard Shapiro calls a Welcomer in his book The Welcomers Edge.  Who is this human being?  Her name is Jackie, she works in a Krispy Kreme store in Austin, Texas.  This is what the customer has to say regarding his encounter with Jackie:   “At this very moment, I knew why Gandhi ever lived because with people like Jackie, mankind is worth saving after all…. Wow, sometimes you make a crazy request, you get an awesome answer.”

Here are the two videos, the first is the video of the first encounter between the customer and Jackie where he makes a crazy request.  The second is a follow-up interview with Jackie where she shares how she relates to herself, her colleagues, her customers. Both of them are more instructive than a ton of books, a ton of theory.  Enjoy and learn!

John Lewis: masterful at employee engagement, customer experience and organisational effectiveness?

What makes John Lewis so special?

John Lewis is one of the few retailers that is doing great in the UK.  My eldest son (who is studying business and passionate about retail) got to spend one week working in the menswear department of John Lewis.  During a car journey I asked him about his experience.  He told me that he enjoyed working at John Lewis and was looking into an apprenticeship.

I asked him what made John Lewis given that he already “runs” the local charity store on Saturdays and has been selling since he was 8 years old.  This is what he told me:

  •  “John Lewis is professional – they do things right“;
  • “I like the people who I worked with“;
  • “Papa, a lot of them have worked there [John Lewis store] for a long time – they love it“;
  • “One of the main people has worked there for 34 years!  He told me that he came for his interview via horse carriage!”
  • “He knows everything about John Lewis and the products they sell“;
  • “He knows instantly what size, colour and clothes will suit the customer!“; and
  • “He is great with customers – they like him.”

I am clear that John Lewis has created a unique context and thus a unique relational bond between the key players in John Lewis: the brand, management, staff and customers. Which is why one person has worked at the John Lewis store for 34 years and knows the business, the products and customers inside out.  And why so many of the staff have been with John Lewis for many years.

How has John Lewis brought about this state of affairs?  By not treating their employees as ‘disposal’ objects/resources which is what almost all other employers do.  Do you know that John Lewis is actually called the John Lewis Partnership.  Who are the partners?  The 69,000 permanent employees!  Yes, the John Lewis Partnership is an employee owned partnership through design/constitution.  Here is what the Guide to Employee Ownership says:

“The John Lewis Partnership has a visionary and successful way of doing business, putting the happiness of Partners at the centre of everything it does. It’s the embodiment of an ideal, the outcome of nearly a century of endeavour to create a different sort of company, owned by Partners dedicated to serving customers with flair and fairness.

All 69,000 permanent employees are Partners who own John Lewis department stores, Waitrose supermarkets, an online and catalogue business, johnlewis.com, and a direct services company, Greenbee.com, with a turnover of nearly £7bn last year. Partners share in the benefits and profit of a business that puts them first.

When the founder, John Spedan Lewis, set up the Partnership, he was careful to create a governance system, set out in the company’s Constitution, that would be both commercial, allowing the business to move quickly to stay ahead in a competitive industry, and democratic, giving every Partner a voice in the business they co-own. His combination of commercial acumen and corporate conscience has helped to make the company succeed.

John Lewis Partnership shares are held in Trust. The beneficiaries of that Trust are the employees of the company, the Partners. They share the profit and have oversight of management decisions through a number of democratic bodies.”

When the employer and the employees show up and operate from a ’employees/employers are disposable’ context, what shows up?

We live in a ‘disposable’ world best epitomised by Apple: the hottest new Apple product is only hot for a year or so then it is ‘thrown out’ and the next hottest thing is bought.  That may be a great relationship as regards objects/resources.  Is this type of orientation/relationship appropriate when it comes to the relationship between the organisation and its employees?  Does a ‘disposable relationship’ lead to a good/great customer experience and contribute to organisational effectiveness?

I say that in normal economic times, the employees are alienated from their work and there is high turnover.  Staff rarely stay long enough to get the organisation: what it stands for, where it is headed, who the key players are, how work gets done etc.  Nor does their brief ‘tenure’ in their role/post allow them to develop the product expertise and the softer customer interaction skills.

What is the impact on the customer experience?  From the customer’s view the employees show up a ‘not having a clue about the products they are selling’ and lacking in basic ‘human to human communication skills’.  At best the customer is left with an ‘adequate/bland/indifferent’ experience.  This kind of experience is good enough as long as there is no real competition.  Else, it is the route to failure – it just takes a little time (that reminds me of a song).

What is the impact of that on organisational effectiveness?  It degrades organisational effectiveness in several ways:

First, it takes some time/effort/cost to recruit new staff and give them even the basic training.

Second, the employees are not invested in their roles nor in the organisation so do not come up with ideas and/or take action to: improve that which is not working well;  improve that which is working ok and could be better; retire that which is not necessary; and come up with that which is necessary and is missing.

Third, these kind of organisations are ‘held together’ by a small number of ‘long timers’ who are the ones who know how the system works and who work the system to get things done.  When they leave – and they do eventually leave as their passion/determination wears out – their knowledge/expertise/passion/dedication walks out with them.  And a big gap is left in the organisation.  Result?  The workability and performance of the organisation suffers.

Fourth, management is so busy dealing with staff related concerns – recruitment, training, interpersonal squabbles, control , exit – that the managers rarely have/make the time to do anything other than put fires out.  And create more policies and practices to further restrict/control the degree of freedom that employees have.  Why?  Because employees have shown that they are not up to the job.

What do I say?

Tell me what matters most to you, what are you really passionate about, what are you genuinely committed to?

If it is the workability and performance of your organisation over the longer term then I say take a good look at The John Lewis Partnership.  I also say throughly read/grapple with the ideas Dave Logan et al share in their book Tribal Leadership and move your organisation to a Level 4 organisation.  Why? Because I am a clear that the John Lewis Partnership is an embodiment of the Level 4 organisation and Dave Logan et al show you how to move the people in your organisation through the different levels.  The bad news?  The fundamental transformation starts with the CEO and his leadership team.

If you are committed to ‘command & control’ and ’employees as disposable resources’ then I say carry on a you are.   And beware that in doing so you are sitting atop a fragile organisation that will break with the next big/unexpected.   I will explore the subject of ‘fragility’ and ‘Antifragility’ in a follow up post.

What do you say?

What have I learned after 25+ years at the coalface: marketing, selling and serving customers

“You have been playing the game of business for 25+ years and most of that has been at the coal face – intimate contact with the customer.  In addition, as a customer you have had many encounters with many companies.  How would you sum that up?” That is the question that was posed to me recently.  As I grappled with that question two passages came to my mind that pretty much sum it up.  The first is a passage from EM Standing’s book Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work and the other is from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov.  Allow me share those with you starting with the latter one.

Book 2, Chapter 4 – A lady of little faith, The Brothers Karamazov

“I heard exactly the same thing, a long time ago to be sure, from a doctor,” the elder remarked. “He was then an old man, and unquestionably intelligent.  He spoke just as frankly as you, humorously, but with a sorrowful humour.

‘I love mankind,’ he said, ‘but I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I often went so far as to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience. As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long to eat his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose.  I become the enemy of the people the moment they touch me,’ he said, ‘On the other hand, it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole.'”

Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work 

One day Dr. Montessori was called in to attend two small babies – twins – who were so near death’s door that their father had said, “Why trouble to get a doctor; they are already dead.” The parents were very poor and unable to afford either household help or nursing. On her arrival the young lady doctor took in the whole situation in a glance.  Taking off her coat, she lit the fire, sent the mother to bed, heated some water, bathed the two babies, “holding them in a special way,” prepared their food, and thus little by little, hour by hour, brought them back to life – servant, cook, nurse and doctor in one.

In later years when this same mother with her children met the Dottoressa in the street she would push them towards her saying, “Go and salute that lady, my dear, she is your real mother, not I: she gave you your life.”

Summing it up

Summing it up I’d say that in the vast majority of organisations ‘management’ talks a great story : about the customer; about brand values like quality, innovation, excellence, customer focus; And internal organisational values like teamwork, collaboration etc.   The talk is marvellous; I remember two CEO’s in particular who were great at that talk.

The issue for this majority of organisations is that the talk just does not translate to substantive interventions that create value for the customer, nor the people in the organisation that actually do the work that directly/indirectly impacts the customer in the form of the product and the customer experience.

Yet, this does not stop the talk.  The less substantive the change and/or the willingness to do what is necessary, the more the talk.  It is as if the urgency/degree of talk is a substitute for acting – of making changes that improve  the ‘workability’ and ‘performance’ of the organisation.

Looking into this I have become convinced that these organisations – the majority of organisations – lack faith.  They lack faith in their customers – that customers will reward them for doing the right thing by customers.  They lack faith in their people (management, employees, marketing, sales, customer service etc) to do what is necessary.  They lack faith in themselves – to effect personal changes and orchestrate/lead organisational changes.  So talking takes the place of acting. Which is why the passage (lady of little faith) from The Brothers Karamazov came to my mind.

Yet there are a small, very small, number of organisations where the people in the organisation get on with what needs to be done: to create value for customers; to engender good relationships between the various tribes in the organisation; to work collaboratively with suppliers and channel partners….

The people in these organisation are moved-touched-inspired by: the mission of their organisation; the quality of their working relationships – they actually like and respect each other; the thrill of creating a future worth creating; and the anticipation of taking on challenges worth taking on.  Which is why the passage from Maria Montessori:Her Life and Work came to my mind and which I shared with you.

What is your experience?

What does it take for ’employee engagement’ to show up? (Part VI) v2

This post is an update to the earlier version (released yesterday) which I published before it was ready to be published by pressing the wrong button.  I apologise.

The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear”  Herbert Agar

In this post I continue sharing with you what shows up for me as I grapple with ’employee engagement’.  Given that some of you may have not read the earlier posts, I will first cover some essential ground and the move forward with the ‘new’.

It all comes down to the “concept of persons” and how one should treat one’s fellow man.

I came across this quote which pretty much sums up the humanistic school’s stance on human being and how man should relate to and treat his fellow human beings:

“If you don’t find God in the next person you meet, it is a waste of time looking for him further.”  Gandhi

Wow!  That occurs in my world as a massively powerful assertion and I can only imagine the love that gives rise to this assertion, this stance, uttered and lived by Gandhi.

Whilst the words of humanistic philosophers (e.g. Rousseau) and psychologists (e.g. Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers) are nowhere as poetic, the underlying stance is remarkably similar: a ‘romantic’ notion about the beauty, the goodness, the nobility of the human being – every human being.  Which is why Gandhi and the humanists, as I understand them, are labelled ‘idealists’.

The world that you and I are dwelling in is shaped, ruled and peopled by ‘pragmatists’: philosophers like Hobbes;  and psychologists like Freud and Skinner.    Pragmatists look at the same reality and come up with a radically different “concept of persons”.  They say that the being of human beings is brutish and that left to their themselves people would turn our life into a brutish one.  Recent examples of this brutishness include Rwanda and Yugoslavia.  And who can forget the WWII concentration camps.  And given this dark side lying at the centre of human being, human beings need (and can be) controlled.  Who is to do the controlling?  Those who have always done the controlling:  the elite who hold/exercise power and get to determine what is good and what is bad.

Where do I stand on this matter?

As an “idealist” I can see the beauty/wonder of human beings and as such I say that “pragmatists” have a dim/dark view/unduly negative and possibly self-serving view of human beings.

As a “pragmatist” (I do have a BSc in Applied Physics) I see that human beings are so addicted to and run by the ‘four prime directives’ (you have to read my earlier post to get what these are) that human beings will slaughter life including millions of fellow human beings simply to be right, to dominate, to look good.  And if we those of us who have killed (including those of us who have stood by whilst the slaughter took place) are questioned about what we are doing/have done, we get busy enthusiastically invalidating others and justifying ourselves!

I say, I can see the value and limitations of both of these distinct “concept of persons”.  They both disclose as well as hide stuff about human being.  Taken together they provide a fuller/richer picture of human being.  Now lets move on with the main thrust of this post.

What is the underlying context that fuels our organisations and management practices?

As I have said before, the dominant concept of persons is that of the pragmatists.  Why?  Because  it is the pragmatists that won the fight, who hold positions of power and shape our world including shaping us, human beings.

If you get this then you may be able to hear and be with what I am about to say.  And which I say   gets to the heart of the matter of ’employee engagement’, ’empowerment’, creativity and innovation.  That is to say, it spells out why these phenomena/qualities are not present in almost all organisations and especially not in large/established organisations.

I say that organisations are prisons. Please note, I am not saying that organisations are like prisons.  No. I am saying that organisations are prisons.

When I say that “organisations are prisons” I am pointing out that the people who commission, fund, build and run prisons are primarily concerned with control: controlling the prisoners so that they become docile and do what they are told without asking questions, without questioning the power of those in power – in short without being troublesome.  And this elite use the tried and tested philosophy and practices of command and control that originated in the military which consisted of a small elite officer class and the much larger class of conscripts who were expected to do the fighting, killing and dying upon orders from the officer class.

Crucially, the people who work in organisations (the employees) experience themselves and show up (for themselves and each other) as prisoners.  They speak as if the organisation is a prison and they are imprisoned in it from 9 to 5.  They do not speak even when what is being asked of them shows up as being ‘stupid’.  They do not challenge bosses that show up for them as being incompetent and/or sadists.  In short, they show all the signs of  learned helplessness: people who, no matter what they do or do not do, cannot affect their circumstance and organisational practices.

This helplessness and the docility, compliance and doing the least that is necessary to get through the prison day is understandable – at least I understand it, I have lived it!  Think back to prisons, what shows up in prisons?  One group of people, the prison guards, are relatively small in number and exercise power over a much larger number of people who are deprived of their freedom and are powerless to decide how they live. The fundamental design and operating practice is to get the prisoners to get present to their powerlessness, their helplessness.  Deming totally got this: one of his 14 points is “Drive out fear”.

How much prisoner engagement, creativity and innovation shows up in a prison?  To date, I have never heard of anyone expecting these phenomena to show up in prisons.  Nor have I read or heard about great prisoner engagement, creativity and innovation in prisons.  Which leads me to believe that these phenomena – engagement, creativity, innovation – are not expected and do not show up in prisons.

What does show up in prisons?  The exercise of power and the compliance with power.  And the acceptance/resentment that goes with one set of people exercising power over the lives of another set of people.  I get that from time to time, characters like  Lt. Colonel Nicholson (from the movie Bridge on the River Kwai) show up who get fellow prisoners to be more, to do more for the sake of themselves, their morale, their dignity.  And this engagement, creativity, innovation dies when people like Lt. Colonel Nicholson lose face, lose power, change roles and/or leave the prison.

If you get, can be with, that organisations are prisons then you will stop wondering why there is a lack of employee engagement, why empowerment rarely works out , why there is so little creativity and innovation.  And you will stop listening to and taking seriously those who peddle ’10 steps to employee engagement’!

I ask you, who truly wants the prisoners to be creative/innovative?  Not those who run the prisons!  Creativity and innovation are threats to control in a number of ways including the fact that they embolden the prisoners who may then act beyond their station. Saddam Hussein engendered is downfall by his prison guards (the USA) by becoming creative/innovative and thus beyond the station assigned to him by the USA.

To sum up, creativity, innovation and authentic empowerment are seen as disruptive – threats to the orderly running of the prison and the maintenance of the status quo in power relations.  And thus are not given the space to show up and if they do show up then they are suppressed.  Those that don’t get the rules and play by the rules experience what Saddam experienced.  Yes, he was tyrant and he was not deposed because he was a tyrant.  He was deposed because he acted beyond his assigned station: he got too creative/innovative in deciding to conquer/rule and reattach Kuwait to Iraq.

How do you call forth ’employee engagement’, creativity and innovation?

Werner Erhard coined an insightful stand/possibility: “a world that works, none excluded”.  Notice, that Erhard got that the current design and function of the systems of power is such that the world does not work for all and many are excluded.  I say this is the same for organisations and organisational life as lived.

Stealing from Erhard, I say that the foundation for employee engagement, creativity and innovation is creating/living/operating from the context “an organisation that works, none excluded”. That means that the organisational play is designed so that it works for everyone in the organisation: shareholder, management, employees, customers, suppliers and regulators.  And that there is an wholehearted authentic commitment to this context by all especially those who wield power and thus see only threat/risk (to themselves) from putting in place and operating from such a context.

What goes with such a context?  What is necessary to enable such a context to take hold and operate?  I say authentic communication.  Jurgen Habermas calls this “undistorted communication” and he spells out four conditions for communication to be undistorted:

1. Symmetry condition – every single person has an equal opportunity to talk and duty to listen;

2. Sincerity condition – every single person means what s/he says;

3. Truth condition – every single person discloses what s/he believes to be true; and

4. Normative condition – every single person says what is right morally.

If you are going to create this context “organisations that work, none excluded” and a context where “undistorted communication” is called forth and is kept in existence then you need to get present to conflict.  And you have to be a stand for peaceful conflict resolution.

Before I share these guidelines I have a question for you.  How many “leaders” do you know that are authentically up for creating/embodying the kind of context and practices that I have spelled out here?  Put differently, how many want to see/be with this truth?

Now you know why I opened this post with that quote by Agar.  Pretty much everyone who writes, and is listened to, by the business world, about these topics ignores this elephant in the room: the fundamental imbalance in power relations and organisation as prison.   Hence, the profusion of banal recipes/checklists for employee engagement, empowerment, creativity and innovation.  Which also explains (at least to me) why  these banal, even idiotic, 10 step checklists fail to deliver on the promises they make.  And some 80% of the people who work in organisations are alienated/disengaged from their work and the organisations they work for/within.

An even bigger idiocy is to put your faith in technology to bring about employee engagement, empowerment, collaboration, creativity and innovation.   Why?  Because prison guards always use technology to further their needs to control/enslave/restrict the little freedom that the prisoners experience themselves as having in organisational life. I was there when sales force automation hit the corporate scene.  I saw and experienced how those of us involved in actually doing the selling saw the technology for what it was and is.   And we used ‘guerilla tactics’ to ‘fight it’.  The fight continues and which is why social technologies have failed to deliver ‘social behaviour’ that the software vendors peddle and managers want.

I have another question for you: how likely is it, really, to get any significant and enduring employee engagement without moving from the existing context (organisations as prison) to the context that I am proposing (“organisation that works, none excluded”) in this post?  

If you think I push this too far then I ask you ask yourself this: why did so many people live normal jobs in large/established companies to start their own companies or join dot.coms when the internet hit the business world in a big way!

Guidelines for peaceful conflict resolution

I came across these guidelines at the Montessori School that my children attended.  When I saw these guidelines it struck me that every family, every team, every organisation can dramatically enhance ‘workability’ and ‘performance’ by embodying the following maxims:

Respect the right to disagree

Express your real concerns

Share common goals and interests

Open yourself to different points of views

Listen carefully to all points of view, all proposals

Understand the major issues that are involved

Think about probable consequences

Imagine many possible alternative solutions, at least several

Offer reasonable compromises

Negotiate mutually fair cooperative agreements

And finally

Montessori School stops here in the UK at age 11.  Which means that I saw no option but to put my children into the normal/traditional schools.  For my children traditional schools (they went to two of them, first was so bad I took them out after a year) showed up as prisons.  Prisons where the students have no voice, no say on the clothes they wear, nor the behaviour of the teachers or the quality of their teaching.  Prisons where the teachers are prison guards intent on dominating/controlling the pupils so that they became docile and do what teachers want them to do.  My children hated these schools and did not want to go to school.  So I made frequent trips to these schools and was seen as a troublesome/difficult parent.

I went to see the head teachers.  At each school, the headteacher  listened politely to my exposition of the Montessori philosophy and how it could be practiced in their school and the benefits for all.    Each headteacher told me that his/her school was not designed for such a philosophy, that the Montessori philosophy is disruptive, and it would not work in their school.

Each told me that their mandate is “to run an orderly institution, in a standard manner, treating all children the same’.  And this meant ensuring that they teachers had the power to control 600 unruly students.  Which meant ensuring that the student knew the rules and stuck to the rules.  And any students who created trouble were acted upon quickly.   When I pressed for the need to respond intelligently, taking into account the needs of the child/the circumstance, I was told categorically that exceptions to operating rule risked the orderly running of the school and the loss of their jobs.

School is the first organisational prison (in our society) that acts on the creative, innovative, empowered, energetic, enthusiastic, alive human beings amongst us: the children.  And it’s hidden design function/purpose is to turn these children into docile creatures who take orders from those in power and carry them out in the prescribed manner and timetable set by the powerful.  In short, to prepare them for organisational life.  And life in society.  

What do you say?